Subject: Plenty of Mobile but Not Much Calder — The Real Story of the Regional USTA Southern Championships

Dear Subscribers:

I know that most of you can make the intellectual leap of the title. In any event, following a “mechanical problem” that US Airways has on most Sunday evenings out of Mobile (according to my excellent sources at the TSA who are oddly friendly and chatty in Mobile) I missed my return connection in Charlotte and got to stay at the Red Roof Inn adjacent to the airport last night. This serendipitous “topping off” of my travels enabled me to experience a pecan waffle at the nearby Waffle House at 12:30 a.m. where I was the only customer not displaying gang colors of one sort or another; it is quite fortunate, probably, that my trusty Tar Heel Blue sweatshirt was not offensive to any of the other inmates. (Certainly no Duke grads were there though some strippers may have been). At least the motel was kind enough to ask if I preferred “smoking” or “non” since I had not even heard that quaint question for a number of years. The first non-smoking room that I entered was like an ashtray but the second one was much better until I placed my head on the pillow and discovered that it had spent much of its long life in the smoking section. But I digress…

I arrived less eventfully in Mobile last Thursday. On first impression, Mobile is sort of like Selma or Montgomery but without the famous demonstrations or fire-bombings. Everyone is too busy navigating their pick-up trucks along the clogged Airport Boulevard and its adjacent service roads (a prescription for demolition derby) to concentrate on much else. The commercial life consists of a delicious melding of pawn shops, bible stores, Hooters and gun-shops with a Baptist Church on each corner. There are numerous political billboards for an upcoming PWI primary (that’s Party of Willful Ignorance for those who do not know the new initials of the former GOP) wherein each candidate is trying to out-do the others in their bonafides on conservatism. Essentially, it is a race to the bottom in terms of services, education, etc. But wait’ll these folks realize the disaster that denial of family planning for a certain demographic will wreak. But I digress further…

My teammates and I assembled at our hotel throughout the afternoon. It was perfectly nice and I grabbed the penthouse level corner room on the third floor. We converged at an Outback for our first team dinner after passing on the Dog House that promised “Hot Dogs and Other Fine Foods”. Picturing the cuisine that awaited throughout the weekend I actually became the first person in Outback history to order a cesar salad with chicken from the very small “heart healthy” section of the menu. Friday dawned breezy and cloudy and we had “the bye” in the morning. We were in a division of 5 teams (NC, LA, MS, SC and AL) and the other four all played while we sat around and got nervous. The tourney format is that each team match consists of three doubles courts and we were to play each other once over the three days to determine the team to play in the final against the winner of the other half (KY, GA, AK, TN and MS#2). Our team only had two intact pairs — due to availablility and injury issues, we were pretty much counting on our #3 court to lose all four of their matches. They met our expectations in spectacular form failing to win even a set. This put a lot of pressure on our other two pairs. This fell particularly on me and my partner, Eric, since we were playing on the #1 court. Our first match finally took place Friday afternoon against two twenty-something giants from Baton Rouge. They were very difficult to understand but I think one was named Jennings and the other Hutch, or some similar piece of furniture. They overpowered us with monster serves on their way to a 5-2 lead in the first set. We steadied our mixture of spins, drop-shots and lobs to pull off a miraculous comeback and win the set 7-5. Unfortunately, the second set went to a tie-breaker which we lost 13-11 and the third set produced a tragic 10-8 defeat. We had the sinking feeling that the whole tourney may have rested on that result… and it probably did.

The team sought solace (and preservation of cash) by cooking a pasta dinner in that evening and most imbibed a fair amount of imbibables. Duly fortified, we went to sleep assuming Saturday would be rained out due to dire predictions of flooding rain and possible tornadic activity. All of those things did occur, as the news noted, somewhat farther north, but Mobile was again just breezy and cloudy. We crushed an alcohol-slowed tandem from Mississippi in the morning 6-2 6-2 and felt confident going into the afternoon match against SC who had dropped both their matches on Friday. Unfortunately, between Friday and Saturday, two working stiffs (they couldn’t get off on Friday) arrived and ruined our plans. The key to a State championship team is, of course, that the players be largely ranked somewhat below their actual capabilities. SC took this to an extreme because BOTH of their best players were ranked 3.5 while Eric and I are both ranked 4 but they were considerably better than us in every respect (as pertains only to tennis, of course). We are definitely more worldly, more urbane, more witty, more handsome, more capable of idiomatic English. But the final score of 6-3 6-2 was about right. We raced back to the hotel to see the second half of UNC’s trouncing of Duke in basketball and then all but one of us (we have one Duke fan) felt better.

The evening’s entertainment was a dinner/party with a live, extremely loud band thrown by the USTA for all participants (over 1,000 people) at an airplane hangar next to the USS Alabama, a WWII-era battleship docked in the port of Mobile. The food was a pleasant surprise… or we were just really hungry. But, either way, we were satisfied. The guys danced the evening away as the preferred squires of an extremely inebriated womens team from Tennessee. A couple of guys were interested in proclaiming that “What happens in Mobile stays in Mobile” but cooler (older? stodgier? smarter?) heads prevailed and I provided my designated driver services to get most of the team back at midnight. The next morning finally dawned sunny and warm and we polished off Alabama 4-6, 6-2, and 10-8. It sounds really close but we felt in command. Having finished with a 2-2 record we were smack in third place out of five, the apotheosis of mediocrity. However, Eric and I will be haunted for the next several years, or until something even worse happens on a tennis court, by the realization that an inch or two in any direction could have won one of the tie-breaks against LA and given us the same 3-1 record as they had and… well. It is what it is, as they say.

Our last supper, so to speak (popular subject in Mobile on a Sunday) was at a Hooters. For the record, my vote was for Olive Garden, but, what can you do? In fairness, the “Big Fish Sandwich”, drenched in grease though it was, was quite tasty. And the waitress was…. not bad… though you definitely do not ever want to see anyone you care about working in that context. Three of us did proceed to drive to the Mobile Botanical Gardens in the afternoon for some azalea and rhodie viewing whilst the younger contingent stayed at the hotel and played video games. And we also drove out to the Gulf to see the water and mansions. The Gardens were very nice; the Gulf area was not so impressive to us. It is a lot prettier here in NC or in a place like Hilton Head, SC or even in most of NJ where much attention is paid to the aesthetics and plantings. Alabama struck me as a mish-mash, architecturally, bill-boardishly, power-line-ishly, ditch-beside-every-road-ishly, road-kill-never-removed-ishly. I did NOT entertain moving there for an instant.

So there it is. We came, we saw and we did not conquer, though it was very, very close. What can you say but what I heard in Hooters when a woman asked her husband “Chester, where y’all wann’ sit?” and he replied, sounding like an obese James Carville, “It don’t make me no never mind.” This unprecendented use of the triple negative is now going to be my favorite phrase.

Your Correspondent